On Writing with Duende

by Gerry LaFemina

The question becomes, in the end, why should I care about your subject matter? Think about it: why should anybody care about the subject matter of your poems? This isn’t meant to be harsh—just a reality check. If your poem is solely about content, solely about things you’ve already known and thought, what insight does it offer someone who doesn’t know you? You’ve asked the reader to spend time with your poem, you owe him or her something for the effort.  The question, therefore, becomes twofold: how much time have you spent with your poem?  How have you rewarded the reader for giving his/her time to your work?

Federico Garcia Lorca used the term duende from the Spanish “duen de casa, ‘master of the house,’” and by that he meant something akin to soul. I think of it as the master of the house that is us, the unconscious, the transcendental. Maurer in his introduction to In Search of Duende says Lorca’s vision of duende had four elements: “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” Not all art has it, but the most resonant work should have duende, something that makes it compelling, something that makes it “deep,” as Lorca puts it.

But what makes a poem compelling? I think it goes back to the notion of writing to discover something deep within us; I’m not talking about emotionally deep necessarily, but something found when we refuse to stick to the surface level of subject matter or conscious notions of what we’re writing “about.” The more we allow ourselves to discover what’s beneath our poem, what surprises us, what is new for us, the more likely we are to explore a moment in which we bring duende into the poem.  We find it in the writing of a poem when we don’t know what we want to say, but through the work, through using the poem as a way of thinking, we clarify and refine a new thought. That’s when we are making something (as opposed to transposing our thoughts into lines). This is a kind of magic or alchemy—when words in lines become more than just words in lines, but shape a new thought. As William Stafford put it, a “writer isn’t so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is he does not draw on a reservoir; instead he engages in an activity that brings him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays…” It is in this manufacturing of a new idea that we go beyond ourselves.

As Longinus said, “In literature … we look for something transcending the human.” Easier said than done. One might say this transcendence stems from the intersection of vision, craft, and process that allows us to “go deep” as it were; Horace says, “It is not enough for poems to have beauty; if they are to carry the audience they must have charm as well …. If you want to move me to tears you must feel grief yourself.” Poems can function as a charm in this sense: “An action or formula thought to have magical power.” (American Heritage Dictionary). They can move a reader to tears, but only if, in the writing, the poet felt grief.

That’s all well and good, but how do we write with duende?  “[T]he duende is force not a labour, a struggle not a thought …. it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning it’s in the veins” says Lorca. Cryptic enough, I know, but I think when we find a poem we’re writing is too easy, when it skips on the surface of our thinking, when we are more concerned (the way the new formalists were) with meter and rhyme (with the poem’s surface, as it were), we are removed from the duende. The duende isn’t in what we write about (or don’t write about) but about why we write or avoid certain topics. “[E]very artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende, not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse.” Duende comes from within, Lorca claims, not from outside the self.

Still, we see it reflected in the world outside of us. Our imagery, how we engage the world and put it into language is a way of acknowledging that struggle. More, perhaps it’s a way of acknowledging the struggle we have of being human–to be singular and communal, to be temporary and transcendental. Craft, by the way, helps us articulate and shape that with which we struggle, giving it a form that allows it to be shared. That’s the importance of poetry. Lorca claims that the duende comes from the acknowledgment of death, but perhaps it’s not a literal death, but the death of the ego, the self, the fear of being lost/consumed by society. The poet, the singer, the artist says “I’m here” but being here is only important insofar as there’s something necessary for us to hear.  Something’s at stake, the self, and the reader recognizes that gamble. This is the importance of craft, of expression. One can have duende—raw and screaming—without artistry or artistry without duende, but neither is satisfying. “[T]he duende loves the edge, the wounds, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.”

We have all heard guitarists who are technically adept but have no soul. Lorca would say they have no duende. Talking about Andalusian songs, he writes “[T]he transcendence of deep song, and how rightly our people called it ‘deep.’ … It comes from remote races and crosses threw graveyard of the years and the fronds of parched winds. It comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” The depth is the stuff below the initial draft, below our “subject matter,” below the story we want to tell, the emotion we want to express. It is the reason we want to express it, someplace we often don’t go. Adrienne Rich says, “The unconscious wants truth … The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious trying to struggle with that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry comes from the same struggle.” Duende is perhaps a force of truth, even the truths we withhold from ourselves.

I remember Marie Howe once saying to a group of my students something to the effect that the mind won’t allow us to tackle subject matter we’re not ready to handle, and she may be right. But that doesn’t mean we choose to look at it: when we consider the poetries of glibness and irony, of anecdote and post-modern fragmentation that are popular today, we see a chronic avoidance of depth, of the darkness, of duende.

Still, though, we talk about it, and bewail its absence on the literary landscape. For those of us who want more from the poems we read and the poems we write, we might wonder if there are surefire ways to make duende happen? Rich says this: “If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite.” By starting here, we “kill” the reality of experience and in this death allow for the imagination to find truths devoid of biographical facts.

What leads this quest for truth? n his book Leaping Poetry, which explores non English poetry and celebrates much of it for its duende, Robert Bly would say that the associative leap will help us create linguist experiences (poems) that generate emotions, and these emotions are “true” for reader and writer. He says, “To write well, you must ‘become like little children.’ Blake discussing ‘experience,’ declared that to be afraid of a leap into the unconscious is actually to be in a state of ‘experience.’ (We are all experienced in that fear.) The state of ‘experience’ is characterized by blocked love-energy, boredom, envy, and joylessness.” One might characterize it as the wound where we might find the duende.

If we think of the unconscious as one of those deep sea trenches in the Pacific, duende is the lava pouring out between the tectonic plates. We rarely see it, its easy to ignore, but it’s the source of enough heat and light to help species of shrimp and fish to evolve.

Bly believes that a “poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” An attentive reader feels that psychic connection between object and idea/emotion. As Dickinson has been quoted as saying: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” She is talking about duende. We want a poem that makes us feel.

There is no formula for generating duende; if there were, it would be commonplace. That said, by writing associatively, by allowing our imagination (that unconscious associator) to lead the poem away from conscious facts and into the realm of truths, we begin to get close. We should be more concerned with the experience we’re making via the writing of the poem than some experience we’re trying to transpose. Beneath that urge to tell our stories is something more, something deeper. By not flinching from the hurtful and frightening but swimming toward it (the way undersea explorers to dive toward the lava flow) do we begin to face the possible sources of duende.